Zack Gross
Zack Gross

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Fair Trade Vodka Just What the Columnist Ordered

Brandon Sun “Small World” Column,  Monday, March 9 / 15

Zack Gross

It is late winter and people are anxious for spring to arrive.  So everyone is grouchy!  We just had our annual “spring forward” time change, so everyone is grouchy!  We are just coming through political turmoil in our province, with leadership and direction in question, at least for some.  So everyone is grouchy!  People are complaining about taxes, about icy roads – even about fair trade!  What everyone may need right about now is a glass (choose your own mix) of vodka.

I was speaking about the new Fair brand vodka, with a “non-drinking” colleague that has just hit the shelves in Manitoba, thanks to Manitoba Liquor Marts’ support of Fair Trade Certified wines, beers and spirits.  We rank first in Canada when it comes to support for ethical purchasing in liquor.  She was surprised to hear that vodka is made from more crops that just potatoes.  Potato vodka, a foodie blogger website tells me, is sweeter, while vodka from grains is more astringent, and now the Fair Trade variety is made from quinoa!

Twelve hundred small, independent Latin American farmers produce this product.  Quinoa is not a grain, but a seed, and has become an overwhelmingly popular health food product in North America.  The Bolivian farmers who produce the fair trade brand guarantee a fair wage to workers, no child labour, and investment of a portion of profits back into community projects such as schools.

Fair vodka was introduced a few years ago in some European markets but now sports a redesigned, lighter glass bottle (reducing the financial and environmental cost of shipping) and a paper label replaces the former foil one, a nod to the green sustainability of this product.  Critics say that quinoa vodka is a little citrusy and spicy.  It’s 40% alcohol by volume, so enjoy in moderation!  Liquor-blogging websites are happy with the new vodka’s taste, while the fact that it is quinoa-based and fair trade makes it stand out in the market.

A billion people on our planet produce rice, Fair Trade Canada tells us, with 90% of it in Asia and especially in China and India.  While rice is a staple to so many hungry people, farmers make a poor living at it as subsidized rice from wealthier countries is dumped onto foreign markets, bringing down the world price. 

Unfortunately, although quinoa is very health and now very popular, producers (aside from those in the fair trade system) have not done well by it.  Farmers again are forced to sell it cheap on the world market.  To cash in on the popularity of quinoa, companies have taken over land usually used to grow food to feed local people.  They have used environmentally unfriendly production methods to grow the crops (slash & burn, GMOs, banned agrochemicals).  Producers do better when they can work from a position of strength organized in cooperatives, with regulations that deter unfair labour and degrading environmental practices, and where a benefit accrues to their communities.

Quinoa is distinguished from rice as it comes as a small, round seed and has a nutty taste.  It has been in use in the Andean Mountain region of South America for over 5000 years and as a hardy crop can withstand a dry climate (as little as 5 cm of rain per year), poor soils and high altitude (up to 4000 metres above sea level).  Its popularity as a health food comes from being no-gluten, high in protein, calcium, iron, phosphorus, vitamin E and several B vitamins, along with eight essential amino acids.  Cookbooks say that you can boil it, toast it, grind it into flour and, relating back to vodka, ferment it!

The Manitoba Liquor Mart website now lists Fair brand vodka, with a 750 ml. bottle selling for about $45.  It is a product of France (that’s where the manufacturing takes place).  They describe it as “smooth, fruity and spicy”.  It fits in nicely with the twenty-two fair trade certified wines also available through Manitoba Liquor Marts, from South Africa, Chile and Argentina.

As one foodie blogger says, if all vodkas are pretty much the same to you, there’s no reason not to try the one that is fair trade quinoa.  And, certainly, if you are upset about the weather, our politics or any other issues, you probably should relax with this beverage.  Finally, if you still haven’t found a reason to support fair trade, maybe Fair vodka is the one!

Zack Gross is a former Executive Director of the Marquis Project in Brandon.

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